History-making performances and brilliant young stars
The EHF EURO 2022 qualifiers had it all — last-minute wins, heartbreaking losses, history-making successes and brilliant individual performances. Following the conclusion of the qualifiers on Sunday, we take a look at the main talking points from a thrilling phase before we look forward to Thursday's final tournament draw.
Perfect Germany and Sweden; near-perfect Serbia
EHF EURO 2016 winners Germany and EHF EURO 2018 finalists Sweden were the only two teams to reach the end of the qualifiers with a perfect record of six wins.
Serbia came close to perfect, with five wins (including two assessed results against Belgium) and one draw.
While Sweden qualified for the last edition of the EHF EURO as co-hosts and Germany won their qualifiers group, Serbia scraped into the EHF EURO 2020 as one of the best third-ranked sides and were knocked out in the preliminary round. Their performance in the qualifiers is amongst the most notable of the successful teams, not only due to the jump but because of their results against France.
Serbia met France in early January, right before the World Championship 2021 where France reached the semi-finals. Serbia won the first clash 27:24 then secured a 26:26 draw. The results were the best ever against France, with the record world champions having won all previous matches against Serbia.
Lithuania return after over two decades
Alongside co-hosts Slovakia, Lithuania are the only team qualified for the EHF EURO 2022 who did not make it to the 2020 edition. The Baltic team ended a long wait to reach the final tournament again, after playing it once before, in 1998.
Not only did Lithuania collect two wins to secure a place among the best third-ranked sides, they presented strong challenges in some lost games as well, such as in their final clash on Sunday when they led Portugal at half-time.
Two other teams that will play the final tournament are set for their second participation in history after making their debuts in 2020: the Netherlands and Bosnia Herzegovina.
The wait continues
Some teams still wait to celebrate a return to the EHF EURO after either a lengthy absence or never reaching the final tournament.
Italy last played the EHF EURO in 1998 on home soil, while Romania’s most recent participation was two years prior to that, in 1996. Israel have not reached the final tournament since 2002.
Of the teams in phase 2 of the qualifiers, Kosovo, Finland, Turkey, Faroe Islands, Estonia, Greece and Belgium will continue waiting for their debut at the pinnacle event.
Schmid leads lethal back court shooters
The top scorers of the qualifiers all came from the back court, with Switzerland’s Andy Schmid ranking first with 55 goals. Estonia’s Karl Toom was hot on Schmid’s heels, tallying 52 goals, and the Netherlands’ Kay Smits rounded out the top three with 48 strikes.
While Toom played eight games in total, as Estonia made their way to phase 2 of the qualifiers through the relegation round, Schmid and Smits both reached their tallies across six matches.
In the EHF EURO Cup, the top scorer was also from the back court, with Hungary’s Dominik Mathe the clear leader on 36 goals — 10 goals in front of his nearest rival.
While Mathe and Smits will be part of the EHF EURO 2022, Schmid and Toom will not — and it is particularly painful for Switzerland, whose losses were all close, including two defeats by just one goal.
Blinding futures ahead for individual standouts
After the top scorer of the qualifiers, Schmid, the next four leading scorers are all 24 or younger. The second and third top scorers, Toom and Smits, both turned 24 this year.
Behind them, Finland’s Max Granlund and Georgia’s Giorgi Tskhovrebadze both tallied 43 goals. Granlund is still 23 while Tskhovrebadze is only 20.
Looking at the youngest of the group, Tskhovrebadze is clearly a name to watch out for. He may be only 20, but the right back is already in his third season with Montpellier HB and recently only just missed out on a place at the EHF Finals after a loss to Berlin in the EHF European League quarter-finals. His goals in this campaign were in phase 1 and the relegation round and a repeat of those performances could well see Georgia play their way through to the second phase of qualifiers for 2024.
Two years ago, when Georgia won the IHF Emerging Nations Championship, Tskhovrebadze was named MVP and All-star Team right back of the competition and contributed 51 goals to rank sixth on the overall top scorer list.
Hungary impress in EHF EURO Cup
Alongside the qualifiers, the directly qualified teams contested the EHF EURO Cup — and there were some notable results.
The co-hosts of the EHF EURO 2022 had vastly different campaigns, while the defending EURO champions Spain recorded more losses than wins.
Hungary topped the table with all but one EURO Cup match played (a postponed game between Spain and Croatia), having collected five wins — including in both legs against Spain — and lost just one game, to Croatia. Croatia were also defeated only once, by Hungary.
On the other hand, Slovakia lost all six of their games, but there was visible improvement as the competition progressed. In their three matches in March, Slovakia lost by at least 10 goals. In their three games in late April and May, the biggest deficit was eight and the standout was a 26:23 loss to Croatia.
Co-hosts neighbours’ success promises crowds
Hungary and Slovakia’s geographical position as neighbours was a key part of the decision to bid as co-hosts of the EHF EURO 2022. Now, with all but one of the surrounding countries qualified for the EHF EURO 2022, plenty of passionate fans are expected to travel to the event — pending the situation with spectators as related to Covid-19 measures.
Tickets for the five preliminary round venues have been on sale since January.